Wednesday, 9 August 2006

An Interview with Human Rghts Lawyer Steve Symonds

The Refugee Legal Centre (RLC) was formed in 1992 and is an independent not-for-profit organization. It is Britain's largest charity provider of legal representation and advice to asylum seekers.

The RLC provides legal advice and representation for those seeking protection under international and national human rights and asylum law. It delivers training and other support to those giving advice and representation in such cases and seeks to promote the interests of refugees and asylum seekers individually and collectively through law and public policy.

Recently, the RLC has been representing Zimbabwean asylum seekers in their bid to convince the Home Office to spare them from President Robert Mugabe's increasingly repressive and brutal regime.

In an email-interview in July, Steve Symonds, a legal officer with the RLC spoke to Ambrose Musiyiwa about the organization, the role he plays in it and the challenges asylum seekers and refugees face in the United Kingdom.

What is the Refugee Legal Centre? Who does the center work with and what does the work involve?

The RLC is the U.K.'s largest charity provider of legal representation and advice to asylum-seekers. The representation and advice we provide is essentially, at present, restricted to assisting asylum-seekers to understand and pursue, where there is merit, their claim for asylum under the Refugee Convention or Article 3 of the European Convention (as incorporated into U.K. law by the Human Rights Act 1998).

Occasionally, we will assist with some wider human rights and immigration matters relating to an asylum-seeker's application to be granted status in the U.K. and the immediate consequences that may follow on from a grant of status -- for example, seeking to be reunited with family; or obtaining travel documentation.

What is your role in the organization and how did you first get involved with it?

I am a Legal Officer. Essentially, this means I am one of a small team to lawyers, who provide advice and legal support to those who provide legal advice and representation to our large client group.

I also undertake my own casework, which is generally restricted to the more advanced stages of the appeal process in the U.K.'s immigration tribunal [which is] called the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. I joined the organisation in 1999.

In fact, I have been providing free representation before a number of tribunals through a number of charities, sometimes as a paid worker and sometimes as a volunteer -- including those dealing with employment, social security and asylum law -- since 1994, shortly after I completed my legal vocational training as a barrister.

I have through this time developed a strong personal commitment towards the provision of legal advice and representation to individuals before courts and tribunals where basic rights and needs are in issue, and where often the individual is culturally, linguistically, educationally and economically at serious disadvantage in seeking to present and protect those rights and needs.

What would you say are the greatest challenges you, as an individual and as an organization, are facing in the work that you are doing? And, how are you dealing with those challenges?

There are substantial pressures due to a mix of under-resourcing, very short time limits, often changing and sometimes not especially coherent policy changes and a general distrust of asylum-seekers among many decision-makers, policy makers and the public at large.

In the main, the RLC continues to focus on its advice and representation work. However, it has made substantial changes to its working practices in an effort to cut costs (there being a general pressure from the Legal Services Commission, across the legal sector, upon those providing legal services under legal aid).

Seeking to provide informed, expert and effective advice and representation in these circumstances has become increasingly difficult for the RLC, as many legal service providers, of late.

Do you have any contact with asylum seekers who are in detention? What are the conditions under which they are being held?

We represent several detained clients. Conditions in detention vary, though much work on this has been done by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Prisons in recent years. More information is available from the Bail for Immigration Detainees.

The UNHCR has accused British politicians and some sections of the media of scapegoating asylum seekers and refugees. What are your comments on this? What needs to be done to change this?

There is a great deal of confusion in much public debate (whether in the media or in political debate) around asylum-seekers and refugees.

If this issue is to be managed effectively and fairly, there are broadly two changes, which I would look for.

Firstly, politicians (and broadcasters and writers) need to understand and reflect an understanding of these issues in leading this debate -- rather than habitually blurring issues of immigration, refugee protection, human rights law, security etc. That also would require both media and ministers to refrain from knee-jerk reactions to particular judgments, which fail to understand or at times attempt to understand the terms or effect of the judgment.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.